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As Taliban steps up attacks, can Afghanistan hold peaceful national polls?

Afghan officials expect to open more polling centers in this spring’s elections than in the last election. Recent attacks have raised doubts that this can happen.

Two recent Taliban attacks have raised concern about Afghanistan‘s preparedness for upcoming elections after Afghan security officials set an ambitious goal for polling in the country’s violence-plagued hinterland. 

Taliban gunmen killed an American soldier in an attack on a military base in Southern Afghanistan yesterday. The attack followed the killing of 21 people on Friday at a popular Kabul restaurant in one of the deadliest attacks against foreign civilians in Afghanistan since 2001.

Observers say the assaults shows how eager the Taliban are to display their strength during this critical period. Campaigning for Afghanistan’s presidential election is scheduled to start on Feb. 2. Washington is pushing President Hamid Karzai to sign a security agreement that would allow a limited number of US and Western troops to remain after their mission officially finishes at the end of the year.

The attacks have added to skepticism over the government’s upbeat appraisal. The Ministry of the Interior said Jan. 11 that more than 6,431 polling stations out of a total of 6,845, or nearly 95 percent, will be active for presidential and provincial council elections on Apr. 5, more than at the last election. 

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The latest election security assessment comes as surprise to some election analysts, members of parliament, and provincial government officials who say that the security situation throughout the country has gotten worse, not better, since the 2009 election. 

“In many parts of the country, people can’t move freely in their own districts or villages because militants from different groups are there,” says Naeem Ayubzada, director of the Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan, an independent group of 37 Afghan civil society organizations that monitors the election process. “The government’s security report for the elections is a political report and does not reflect the realities on the ground.” 

According to incident reports from the Ministry of Interior, many of Afghanistan’s 11 provinces that border Pakistan are actively fighting the Taliban and other insurgent groups. Some provinces are believed to be controlled by shadow governments that answer to the Taliban. However, the election security assessment says all polling centers in six of those provinces will be secure to hold elections in April. 

A female member of parliament from one of the provinces, who didn’t want to be identified for security reasons, says that her province is so insecure that she can only fly into the capital – driving on the roads is too unsafe.

“The Taliban control everything in the districts,” she says. “At this point I can’t see any of the polling sites being able to open except for the ones in the [provincial] capital.”

The female lawmaker said she understands that the Afghan government wants its people to take part in the elections but that it’s irresponsible for security forces to claim that they can safeguard districts that they don’t control.

“If the government doesn’t have control of some provinces and many local areas now, how can they be sure that they will in three months time?” asks Mr. Ayubzada.

‘No choice but to move forward’

Even officials at Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) strike a cautious note. While they say they are working hard to prepare for the election, they don’t want to give a false impression that all the polling centers are secure.

“The IEC relies on the Afghan governmental security organizations to tell us what areas are secure, but it’s obvious that in some areas we will be trying to conduct elections in the middle of fighting [between antigovernment groups and the Afghan and international security forces],” says IEC Chief Electoral Officer Ziaulhaq Amarkhil.

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Nonetheless, Mr. Amarkhil and others say that the Afghan government has no choice but to move forward with the election plans.

“This is our time. The security won’t get better in two months or six months. There is no other way for political transition because Afghans are used to elections now and they won’t accept anyone choosing their leader for them,” says Amerkhil.

However, critics of the election process and security assessment say that a corrupt or unrepresentative election would also be unacceptable to Afghans and would hurt the legitimacy and control of any new government.

With 11 presidential candidates and the possibility of low voter turnout, a runoff vote may be needed. To win the first round, a candidate must garner more than 50 percent of votes cast. 

As an independent election monitor, Ayubzada would like to see more coordination between the Afghan Ministries of Interior, Defense, and the National Directorate of Security. One suggestion: Assign army and police units to polling sites in advance so they can prepare for election day. 

“There is very little coordination on security, especially election security preparations between the three Afghan security organizations and between the central and provincial departments of each of these organizations,” says Ayubzada.